Chuck Surack created a makeshift recording studio in the back of his Volkswagen Bus in 1979. Today he runs Sweetwater Sound, a music company in Fort Wayne, Indiana, that brings in $725 million in annual sales.

40 years ago, he built a recording studio in a VW bus. Today, he runs a $725 million music empire

Updated 11:05 AM ET, Tue May 21, 2019

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In 1979, when Chuck Surack was 22, he created a makeshift recording studio in the back of a beat up Volkswagen bus and drove around Fort Wayne, Indiana, recording local bands, choirs and singers.

Surack, who had toured for five years playing the saxophone and keyboards after he graduated from high school, had outfitted the van with equipment he had gathered while on the road.
"I knew from my band experience that paying for studio space was very expensive," said Surack.
He equipped his mobile studio with a reel-to-reel tape recorder that could record from four microphones at a time. He'd then mix the audio into a final recording.
Microphones and collectibles line the shelves of Chuck Surack's office at Sweetwater Sound's 400,000 square-foot campus.
"I'd drive to local schools, churches and clubs, mic up the bands and choirs and sit in the bus with 200 feet of microphone cable and my headphones on and record them," he said. He'd convert the recordings into albums and cassettes for his clients at a discount to traditional recording studios.
That Volkswagen bus was the starting point of Surack's company, Sweetwater Sound. Today, Sweetwater Sound is one of the largest online retailers of musical instruments and audio equipment in the United States.
    "Basically, we sell anything that is used to create and record music," said John Hopkins, the company's chief operating officer.
    According to Hopkins, the company ships 3,300 guitars, 37,000 guitar picks, 830 keyboards, 460 drum kits and 5,300 microphones every week.
    But Surack has expanded his empire well beyond music. He now owns a dozen other businesses in Fort Wayne under the Sweetwater brand. There's SweetCars, a luxury car dealership, private charter businesses Sweet Aviation and Sweet Helicopters, and a local optical retailer called Longe Optical.
    But the bread and butter of his business is the music.
    Surack said his company is profitable and growing sales by 20% to 25% a year. With annual sales now of $725 million for the music business alone, he's confident that the $1 billion revenue mark is within reach.
    "I never dreamed I would have a business in this position," said Surack. "I'm not driven by greed or desire to make money. I'm driven by doing the right thing."